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The Magazine
Database >> Wednesday May 09, 2007
A scientific mind

An interview with Science and Technology Minister Professor Dr Yongyuth Yutthawong

DON SAMBANDARAKSA

Science and Technology Minister Yongyuth Yutthawong... "I'm afraid of the smart ID card project; afraid it will erode our civil liberties." — DON SAMBANDARAKSA

Routine and boring aspects of day to day IT will be the domain of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT), but the exciting cutting edge will remain at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), according to Science and Technology Minister Professor Dr Yongyuth Yutthawong.

Speaking in an exclusive interview, Yongyuth said that when he helped to set up the Science and Technology Ministry 28 years ago, it was to help promote science and technology, but more importantly it was to help give science and technology a voice in the Cabinet.

Unlike every other ministry which focused on policy, however, MoST found itself in the peculiar situation of actually doing things and conducting research within the Ministry.

It soon became obvious that doing research within the bureaucratic hierarchy was not possible, hence the move to set up the National Science and Technology Development Agency, an autonomous agency that today has Biotec, Nectec and other national centres of excellence under its wing. Yongyuth stressed that the NSTDA was the precursor to a more flexible form of government that has since been adopted by many different ministries.

Today, he said that the problem with the MICT was that it only had one body - the Software Industry Promotion Agency - as an autonomous agency by which to implement policy. That made things very difficult and even today there is much talk of whether Nectec should be transferred to MICT or not.

However, he stressed that the overlap between Nectec and Software Park Thailand and MICT and Sipa was not a problem. Indeed, the domain of science and technology overlaps with virtually every organisation and immediately prior to the interview, Yongyuth was talking to some environmentalists on a matter which primarily falls under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Yongyuth, who holds a PhD in organic chemistry from Oxford, admits to not being an IT person, but as president of the NSTDA from 1992 to 1998, he found himself guiding Thailand through the heyday of the first wave of IT.

"Even Nectec (the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre) was not originally about IT. It only changed its focus to IT in the mid-90s. What Nectec did succeed in was in bringing the Internet to Thailand. That was a watershed time in our industry, to take an academic plaything and make it commercial along with the rest of the world," he said.

Yongyuth also remembers signing off projects for Nectec to develop 32-bit PCs and micromotors. Towards the end of his tenure at NSTDA, Yongyuth recalls emailing then Nectec director Professor Pairash Thajchayapong about the possibility of doing greenfield research into quantum computing. Only today are people starting to talk about quantum computing and quantum encryption in practical terms.

Pairash succeeded Yongyuth as president of the NSTDA and later rose to Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology. In the weeks following the September 19 coup, Pairash was also tipped to be ICT Minister up until the last moment. So what happened?

"ICT should have been Pairash, but General Surayud knew Sitthichai for his rice moisture measuring machine," he explained.

ICT Minister Sitthichai Pokaiudom, during his time at the King Mongkut Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, developed a rice moisture monitor based on electrical capacitance. This machine was then mass produced and rice mills and markets were forced to buy it so that rice farmers could price their rice based on the moisture content of the rice with the intention of helping provide a fair and educated market. Back then, Surayud was in charge of the army's rice project and hence the two men met.

"However, it never worked. It was like the taxis and hats. Ever taxi driver was ordered to buy a hat, but they never wore it. The government forced everyone to buy these machines and they lay unused at the rice mills because nobody educated them about the system," he said.

The One Laptop Per Child project was also a good project, but unfortunately it was too closely tied to the Thaksin government and politically it was not possible for the Surayud government to carry on with it, Yongyuth admitted.

He said that immediately after Education Minister Wichit Srisa-an announced that Thailand would be withdrawing from the project, he was contacted by MIT's Professor Nicholas Negroponte, who was not willing to accept any compromise. Negroponte offered the MoST the chance to take over the project, but demanded that Thailand commit to at least a million units.

This was because Negroponte needed firm volumes to convince the hardware manufacturers. MoST was interested in doing a few pilot projects, but could not make the commitment demanded by Negroponte, hence Thailand fell off the OLPC map.

Yongyuth has been praised by many as being an executive who answers his own email. He said that when he first met Negroponte in the mid-90s, he was impressed how he was already practising the paperless office that even today Thailand strives for.

Asked about the Smart ID Card project, Yongyuth said that he was not too concerned with the current technical specifications, but admitted to be very worried about data privacy and security.

"I am very scared when it comes to privacy. Maybe the card even today is aleady too smart. Will it intrude too much into our lives? Perhaps we should think of augmenting the ID card system rather than put more and more into the card. What if we have our entire life on it? Our genes on it? What if that information is hacked? Many governments have data protection laws that prohibit putting too much information in one single database, but not Thailand," he noted.

Yongyuth is also concerned that today people have stopped talking about the digital divide, while in fact it remains as wide and damaging as ever.

He said that he had just returned from a project on Digital Thailand, which combined geographical information systems with satellite maps with the help of technology developed by Nasa. The project was delivered on CDs rather than online. This was because few schools outside of major cities today have Internet access. Worse, he said that many schools which did have computers kept them locked up in cabinets so that they would not be used and break down.


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